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Alexi Kaye Campbell: 'I was an actor for 20 years, so I understand what they need'

Actor-turned-playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell's acclaimed new play Bracken Moor is currently at the Tricycle, while a star-laden revival of his breakthrough work The Pride is due next month

By • London
Alexi Kaye Campbell
Alexi Kaye Campbell
© Johan Persson

Could you give us a quick snapshot of Bracken Moor?

It's a sort of gothic ghost story. It's quite difficult to talk about without giving massive spoilers. As anyone who's seen it will realise, it takes you on lots of twists and turns. I think the fun of it is never knowing where it's going to take you next. It's set in 1937 and there are certainly parallels between that era and the current economic situation. Hopefully by the end of the play the choice of form will make sense, because in some way I think it reflects the content. God that sounds so dull! The moment a writer starts talking about their play… Let's say it's a good ghost story.

Do you think Europe is currently anywhere near the kind of danger it faced in the 1930s?

I think I feel it more acutely because I'm half Greek. My family all live in Greece, so I go to Greece a lot, and the situation there is really bad; I just did a short play at the Royal Court about it. It's very extreme. Ten years ago if you'd have asked if I thought the far right would have any sway or power in Greece I would have laughed at the notion, but now this horrific kind of neo-Nazi group is garnering support from about 10% of the populace. So I do think there is a great worry. I never like being a doom-monger, as I think there's always hope. But I do think, with the situation being as it is, that big questions have to be asked about the current system and the fact that it's not really working.

Daniel Flynn and Joseph Timms in Bracken Moor
Daniel Flynn and Joseph Timms in Bracken Moor
The play also addresses tensions between the working and upper class

You can't ask big questions about the economic system without going further and asking questions about class. For example what's happening now, whereby the wealthy are getting much wealthier, but the people that need help the most are not being given that help. And the fact there really isn't any work out there. Again, I can't separate it to what's happening in Greece, because what's happening there is decimation of the middle classes. So I wanted to address all these issues but I wanted to write about them in an imaginative and original way. That's why I chose the form of a ghost story.

A playwright recently told me that he finds the first production of a play is difficult, because it highlights the problems. Do you agree?

I'm going to sound arrogant now, but I don't. I'm very proud of what Polly Teale has achieved. I think it's a stunning production and beautifully acted. I wouldn't change anything about the play right now , although of course, in the future, I might change my mind.

How have you found working at the Tricycle?

The whole experience has been a joy, working with Indhu [Rubasingham] and Polly. And [designer] Tom Piper has created a beautiful set that nestles into the space fantastically. Indhu has programmed some interesting work since taking charge and it will be exciting to see where she takes it next.

Could you tell us a bit more about your involvement in the Open Court season [at the Royal Court]?

We came up with the idea of a week of plays called PIIGS, which is the acronym for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain, and it was about the crisis affecting these Eurozone countries. We did an evening on each of them, and I did the Greek evening. I translated a play from Greek, translated some interviews and then wrote my own play as a response. You can watch it on the Royal Court website. It was a very immediate response to what's happening, and came out of the brilliant idea Vicky had for Open Court. It was really good fun.

I've also been doing something called Playwright at Your Table, which is absolutely terrifying! There's a group of playwrights taking part including me, Simon Stephens, David Eldridge and Timberlake Wertenbaker. We put our names in a hat and the audience pick a playwright and go to various parts of the Royal Court and have a play read to them. I was so scared of boring them that and I ended up doing all these ridiculous voices, trying to animate my plays as much as I could just to keep them interested. But because I was an actor for many years I was able to just about carry it off.

Is it strange being at the Court without Dominic [Cooke, Campbell's partner]?

Not really because I never worked directly with Dominic at the Royal Court. I worked there when he was the AD, but I mainly worked with Jamie [Lloyd]. I think Vicky's fantastic, and I think she's going to put her own mark on it which is such a lovely thing. Dominic did an extraordinary job at the Court, and I'm incredibly proud of everything he achieved there, but I'm sure Vicky will also do an extraordinary job. The Court is always going to be a centre of excellence because it takes risks and Vicky is a risk-taker just as much as Dominic was, in different ways. It's really exciting actually, really exciting.

How does playwriting compare to acting?

As an actor you're putting yourself in other people's shoes, and as a writer you're kind of doing the same but with more characters. I used to write when I was younger and then I stopped for a long time and focussed on the acting. When it got to a point in my life when I was approaching 40 and wasn't fulfilled enough, I returned to the writing. But all my years as an actor have completely informed my work as a playwright. I was an actor for almost 20 years, so I learnt a lot from being in lots of different plays – classics, new plays, all sorts of things. So I understand what actors need. Everybody in my plays gets their 'moment', because I remember sitting there in rehearsals going "Where's my f**king moment?!". I love writing parts for actors.

So you're set on playwriting now?

I'm completely set on it, and I think I've got a few more plays in me.

Is there something to be said for starting a playwriting career later in life?

Absolutely. I think in some ways we're a culture that's obsessed with youth, whatever field that's in. It permeates every profession, and it does permeate the arts and theatre as well. I could not have written The Pride (2008), which was my first produced play, when I was 25. I wasn't ready. For me the whole process of learning things and serving an apprenticeship as an actor first really informed my life as a writer. I probably couldn't have written anything when I was in my early 20s, though that's not to say there aren't plenty of brilliant writers who can.

Are you excited about revisiting The Pride with Jamie Lloyd?

Very excited. Jamie's original production was stunning but the play was seen by very few people because it had a short run in a small theatre. So to be bringing it back to a London audience makes me very happy indeed. And what is especially exciting is that because it's been a good five years and we have a whole new cast Jamie will be revisiting the play from scratch, not just re-staging the original version.

Hayley Atwell in The Faith Machine (2011)
Hayley Atwell in The Faith Machine (2011)
Did the recent gay marriage debate prompt the revival?

The gay marriage debate has been in the news a great deal lately, so there is no question that suddenly the play seemed extremely topical. One of the main themes of The Pride is the question of commitment in its various forms. So it is relevant considering that a few hundred metres down the road from the theatre the Houses of Parliament have been debating the topic of gay marriage.

And you'll be working with Hayley Atwell again

I loved working with Hayley on The Faith Machine and I cannot wait to be in the rehearsal room with her again. The thing about Hayley is that apart from being a wonderful dramatic actress she has a great flair for comedy and The Pride will give her ample opportunity to exercise that gift. And apart from anything else, she is a lovely person, open and always positive.

And after The Pride, what's next?

I'm working on a couple of things, including a commission from the National which I said I'd deliver it at some point within the next six months. But that's under wraps at this stage, largely because I'm the kind of writer who will spend three months a play and then think ‘oh no, that's the play I want to write'. So if I say something now it'll probably change by the end of the month.

Bracken Moor continues at the Tricycle until 20 July 2013. The Pride opens at Trafalgar Studios on 8 August

Tags: Brief EncounterJamie LloydTrafalgar StudiosTricycle TheatreHayley AtwellAlexi Kaye CampbellBracken MoorThe Pride


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